Book Report: The Last Place on Earth

Remember how last week I warned you that I wasn’t going to be posting as much because I was going to try to start writing some non-blog stuff? Well, I kept up half of that bargain by not posting. But honestly, I’ve not spent the time writing – I’ve been reading.

I kept running across “The Last Place on Earth“, Roland Huntford’s controversial “expose” of the Amundsen-Scott race for the South Pole. Figured it was time I sat down and read it.

Here’s the background. Historically, at least in the English/American narrative, Scott was the bold Englishman whose scientific expedition set out to map and discover the wonders of Antarctica, including the South Pole. Beset by awful weather and bad luck, they made it, half-starved to the Pole, only to discover that Amundsen, the sneaky, underhanded Norwegian scoundrel, had dashed to the Pole ahead of them, robbing England of its deserved glory. Scott and his brave crew died on the return, gallantly sacrificing themselves for each other, leaving poignant notes scrawled to posterity about being honored to show that Englishmen are still willing, in words taken from Tennyson “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

It’s the stuff of legends, and set the mark for English would-be heroes for the next generation and beyond. Unfortunately, says, Huntford, it’s all hogwash.

Following Huntford, Scott was an hopeless bungler, an incompetent leader and viscously jealous, insecure patsy, unfit for any duty but writing eloquent letters and looking good at cocktail parties. He twice barely escaped death for his incompetence, but met it at the third try, having failed to learn the obvious lessons from his previous excursions. In contrast (again, according to Huntford), Amundsen was a true leader of men, a methodical engineer, and a student of Nature, who took care to profit with the wisdom of every nuance of experience. He was as much a symbol of Norway’s coming of age as Scott was a symbol of the English Empire’s decay.

Honestly, I’ve got a problem with Huntford. I can’t help but believe that there’s truth in both of these narratives, but to me, both the traditional English history and Huntford’s “expose” reek of the same caricature. Huntford is a great writer – maybe as great as Scott – and certainly has done his research. He peppers the 580 pages of the book with contrasts between the official account of Scott’s journey and the original text of his diary, with rather uniformly damning effect.

For example, upon realizing that he’d been beaten to the Pole, the official account reads “Now for the run home and a desperate struggle. I wonder if we can do it.” Scott’s diary in fact reads “Now for the run home and a desperate struggle to get the news through first.”  Both Amundsen and Scott knew that reaching the newspapers first was as important – if not more so – than reaching the the Pole first, and Scott’s ambition here is not in the least honorable.

So Scott was no angel. And he had no business leading an Antarctic expedition representing the British crown. But Huntford doesn’t spare the whip for a single sentence. In almost every paragraph, Scott is “a heroic bungler”,  demonstrating “grotesque futility” – “whining”, “conniving”, and “backstabbing”.  Okay, okay – I get the idea that Huntford finds him wanting, but after 580 pages, it gets kind of old.

In contrast, Amundsen can do no wrong. Huntford attributes his every step to foresight and planning, his every action one of humility and concern for his fellow man (or the wife of his fellow man – in this narrative, his affair with the wife of a benefactor is a merciful act he engages in for the benefit of the poor, neglected dear). Amundsen is clearly a conscientious man with attention to getting things right, but this too gets old after a while.

The contrast is most stark when you compare Huntford’s reactions to some of the parallel decisions made by both men. Scott decides to rely on motor sledges to help haul supplies for the first part of the overland journey. Huntford ridicules his decision to use unproven machine in such a crucial role, but in the following chapter lauds Amundsen’s “bold and forward-thinking” decision to fit his ship with a diesel engine, still an untried, experimental technology to get his entire expedition down to, and through the ice. Sigh.

The most egregious example is the charts. Huntford never lets us forget that on his previous expedition in The Discovery, Scott “carelessly lost” his only copy of some overland charts the landing party was to rely on for navigation. Chapter after chapter Huntford excoriates him for this clear demonstration of ineptitude (ooh – I like that word “excoriate” – I may have to use it again soon). How can people continue to trust him with the lives of men when he’s so clearly an imbecile? Meanwhile, Amundsen, after years of careful planning in which Huntford assures us no detail has been left uncovered (we’re treated to Proustian pages on how carefully they’ve selected the Florida hickory to be used for the runners of their skis and sledges) settles in for the winter of his 1911-1912 expedition. He then discovers

By a ludicrous mistake, the Nautical Almanac for 1912 had been forgotten, the 1911 edition only being landed, and a single copy to boot. One night it was set on fire by an oil lamp.

Other than Amundsen taking this as an omen that he must now reach the Pole by New Years, we hear no more of this little incident. Ahem. And in the following paragraph, there is another “hitch” followed by “a piece of ingenious improvisation”. As they settle in for the winter, they further discover that

Snow shovels had somehow been forgotten. Bjaaland the carpenter, ski-maker, builder, violin-maker, musician, ski champion, made some out of an iron plate, “Considerably better,” said Amundsen, “than one can buy.”

A little “hitch” and “somehow been forgotten”?!? Must have been Scott’s fault, and thank God for Norwegian ingenuity. The lost comparisons go on and on. Where Scott’s action is excoriated, Amundsen’s is extolled.

And it doesn’t just stop at our protagonists. Huntford goes out of his way to villify the entire Scott line. Scott’s father was “the youngest, weakest and least qualified” of his family generation, “plagued by a sense of inadequacy, prone to violent outbursts”  (If Amundsen’s father had these traits, I expect he would have been described as “humble, yet passionate”). Scott’s mother “concealed a debilitating despotism”. Reading Huntford, Scott’s wife Kathleen was a scheming social climber who just wanted good breeding stock to give her a son, and was implicitly glad that her husband had died on the ice, leaving her the admired widow of a legend, rather dooming her as wife of disgraced failure. There’s no mention of a family dog, but had there been, I have no doubt that Huntford would have kicked him.

Anyhow – you get the idea.

All this being said, I still recommend the book. Highly. Huntford has done a huge amount of research. And he writes so damned well. He gives a feel for the task at hand and the men involved – far more than just Scott and Amundsen. He brings to life dozens of others who are just footnotes in photographs and other histories. I already knew about Oates (“I am just going outside, and may be gone a while”), but what about Bowers and Wilson? And Hanssen, Bjaaland and Gran – I feel like I now know these people, if only in passing.

And it is possible to read the narrative with a good set of filters. Rather than simply canonizing one man and villifying the other, you can read it as a unified tale of glory and defeat. Herodotus opens his “Histories” with the explanation of why he has written:

…that time may not draw the color from what man has brought into being, nor those great and wonderful deeds, manifested by both Greeks and foreigners…

I think, in the end, Huntford has written for the same reason. If you strip away the identities, The Last Place on Earth serves as a glorious history wrapped around a morality tale: The Antarctic is harsh as hell and will kill you if you’re not careful. Maybe even if you are careful. Brave men went out to explore it, committed great and wonderful deeds. Some stupid and ignominious deeds, too. A lot of them didn’t come back. Remember them, remember their deeds. And learn from their mistakes.

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Okay, okay. I’m done ranting. Next post, I promise, will be about penguins, or the lack thereof. Or maybe Linda and I will finally get to that soap bubble experiment. And I’ll catch up on my two-weeks-overdue “Pablo at the Pole Questions“. Promise.

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